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This Little-Known Pioneering Educator Put Coding in the Classroom

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Seymour Papert lecturing on LOGO, computers, and education.

The career of respected mathematician and early pioneer of artificial intelligence Seymour Papert, who died July 31 at 88, presaged much of today's focus on education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Credit: Shen-montpellier

A man who was arguably the most influential educator of the last 50 years – though he was not widely known to the American public – died on July 31. A respected mathematician and early pioneer of artificial intelligence, Seymour Papert was 88. His career presaged much of today’s focus on education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and helped shape the classroom of today and of the future.

As an academic, he paved the way for generations of researchers. In their 1969 book "Perceptrons," Papert and his MIT colleague Marvin Minsky were early advocates of the need to investigate the computational details of how early artificial intelligence actually functioned. Today that approach underpins evaluations of neural networks, which foster deep learning, a computational technique widely used in data analytics.

But perhaps his most powerful legacy sprang from his research into learning, specifically the role of computers in education. Papert argued that learning was most successful when students were engaged in creative acts – when they were making things. For him, computers allowed and encouraged creation in a broad range of areas, and could therefore be a key to unlocking better teaching and learning.

As early as the mid-1960s, he was advocating for children to be taught to program computers. At the time, of course, even the smallest computers were the size of office filing cabinets. They weren’t used in schools; his idea was considered extreme and elitist. Papert persisted. Today, every modern student should be grateful to him.


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